Football Injuries at Harvard Before and After the 1906 Reforms

During a brutal 1905 football season resulting in multiple fatalities, President Theodore Roosevelt met with college officials to discuss reforming the sport. By December 1905, 62 schools had appointed a rules committee for intercollegiate football. In January, reforms were set in motion, including the legalization of the forward pass and the banning of unnecessary roughness. On March 31, 1906, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) was founded. A few years later, it became known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

The following article, originally published in the 1909 (Boston Med Surg J 1909; 160:33-37), details the number and type of injuries sustained by Harvard football players before and after the 1906 reforms. The lead author, E.H. Nichols, M.D., was the Harvard team physician, as well as a noted surgeon and one of the college representatives who et with President Roosevelt in October 1905.

In response to the article, the Boston Daily Globe declared “Game No Longer a Perilous Sport” (January 15, 1909) and the New York Times reported on the study on March 7. However, the 1909 football season was extremely violent, with a Virginia player dying on the field, a Navy player suffering a broken neck, a West Point cadet dying from injuries suffered in a game, and numerous high school players dying or getting seriously injured. By December, newspapers had branded the sport “barbarous” and called for more reforms, which did occur. This time, the reforms banned interlocking interference, pushing, and pulling, while also opening up the game by reducing the number of players on the line of scrimmage to seven and by allowing backs to receive forward passes for the first time (previously only ends could catch forward passes).

As for Dr. Nichols, he served in the U.S. Army during World War I. After the war, he continued to practice as a surgeon and served as the Harvard baseball and football team physician until his death in 1922.

Beyond expounding on the “poops” (i.e., bruises on the body) and the protective equipment in 1909, Nichols explains some very familiar symptoms of concussions.

    It is curious to notice the different degrees of confusion which result from the injury. It often happens that the other players notice nothing wrong with the injured man, although from the side lines his irresponsible conduct may be evident.

    A man injured in the head may continue to ‘line up’ for a long series of plays and may automatically go through his assignments, although if questioned he may be unable to tell his name, residence, the day of the week or the name of the opposing team.

    It undoubtedly is true that games have been lost by men injured in this way, so that they are quite irresponsible for their actions, without their mates recognizing that anything was wrong.